Home Sweet Virtual Home

Software will strengthen ties within communities

Toward the end of the 1990s, a loose-knit community of programmers with limited financial resources took on the world's most powerful software companies--and triumphed. Known as the open-source movement, this freewheeling confederacy grew up on the Internet. Unbound by geography or time, it has used the new communications medium as both a laboratory and a launchpad for high-quality programs such as Linux, Apache, and Perl that compete head on with Microsoft, IBM, and Sun Microsystems. The movement has spawned a whole new set of rules for the world's $150 billion software industry. And it has established a new model of how people can live and work online.

It's fitting that a band of programmers should blaze trails for online communities. Teams of engineers designed the Net to transcend crass physical limitations. Once this ethereal infrastructure was laid, waves of homesteaders arrived: physicists chasing data on quarks and black holes, religious fanatics, revolutionaries waving every known political banner, children looking for cyber playmates on the other side of the planet. With traditional communities weakening in a fast-paced world, the Net offered a potent way to form new bonds based on pure intellectual affinity.

But the Net's early pioneers learned a painful lesson: In a world of infinite electronic choices, it can be extremely difficult to connect. How do you find a handful of like-minded souls in a global pool of 150 million Netizens? Facts and data are readily available. But today's best search engines can't sift through a thousand news groups and message boards for a discussion thread that will inspire you or guide you to a community of your peers.

STILL CAVE DWELLERS. Fortunately, dozens of research labs and Internet startups, stretching from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory to the University of Tokyo, are on a mission to improve life on the Internet. Within five years, software will take much more accurate soundings of who you are and what you seek. New programs will let strangers on the Net appraise one another--whether they are looking for expert advice or buying and selling goods. Other software tools will make it easier for members of a group to wander the Web together, untethered to a particular portal, mailing list, or message board. Human voices are already augmenting text in chat rooms. Next, for Netizens who seek intimacy--not anonymity--video will provide human faces for online personas. Until these tools reach maturity, however, Net communities will remain in the Stone Age. Says Steve Larsen, senior vice-president of Minneapolis-based Net Perceptions, which pioneered the first wave of software that recommends books and music at Amazon.com and CDNOW: "At this stage, we're all still sitting around the fire in loincloths holding clubs."

The new tools can't come soon enough for Michal Plume, a mother of four who runs a small business from her home in Palo Alto, Calif. Worried about declining standards in the local school system, she spent much of the mid-1990s debating issues in education news groups, organizing mailing lists, and struggling to find or forge a community that could influence haughty high school administrators. "For the longest time, the kids saw only the back of my head," she says. After many frustrating months, she concluded that "real people who have the information you need don't join these groups."

Nor does she expect to find soulmates in the random and repetitive cyberstreets of Geocities, Tripod, Xoom, TheGlobe, and other virtual metropolises. For every lively chat room debate about hot stocks or hunger in Africa, there are hundreds of dead discussion areas, dreary or abandoned home pages, threads that go nowhere, lonely voices in the darkness. "The sense of community has been lost on these sites," says Emily Meehan, an analyst who covers online communities for Yankee Group in Boston.

Yet the raw material for vibrant communities exists on the Net in spades. There are astounding repositories of poetry and pop culture and expertly moderated bulletin boards. Side by side with abject quackery are superb e-mail forums like that of the British Medical Journal, where physicians from around the world debate everything from organ transplants to euthanasia (www.bmj.com).

In life-and-death matters, virtual communities--for all their flaws--can be a godsend. Parents of dying children sustain one another in hope and grief. Cancer patients become wise partners to their physicians. "Many of my patients who spend time on the Net are extremely well informed and ask astute questions," says Dr. Hiram S. Cody III, a breast cancer specialist and surgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

The trouble is, finding jewels on the Net today depends far too much on luck. That's why so many experts in online communities are studying the experience of the open-source movement. This community, which has roots in the early '70s and comprises thousands of hackers worldwide, swears allegiance to no central portal. Instead, teams of programmers collaborate via dozens of decentralized mailing lists and message boards.

INFORMED CRITICS. They find one another because they understand an emerging set of shortcuts and secret passageways that will one day be common through cyberspace. "What serious geeks do is a predictor for what larger groups do," says Tim O'Reilly, open-source evangelist and president of publishers O'Reilly & Associates. Out of sheer necessity, such programmers have built some of the best tools to locate high-level discussion and to refine useful information from all the random noise on the Net.

To watch this in action, visit a bustling technology hub called Slashdot (www.slashdot.org), a unit of technology news site Andover.Net in Acton, Mass. Created by open-source hackers in their early twenties, the site is "required reading," says Raghu Ramakrishnan, professor of computer science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Thanks to a process of continuous peer review, the hottest tidbits from technology mailing lists and discussion boards around the world show up on Slashdot's main menu. "This is an organic community that shapes itself, a place where you can discover not just what people claim to be but what others think of their claims," says Ramakrishnan.

Slashdot's band of editors deserves credit. But they also depend on homegrown computer code to help rank input from the message boards. The higher a participant is rated by his peers at Slashdot, the greater clout he or she will get as a judge of others who post comments. "Slashdot's software is all open source, and now a lot of other Web sites are using it," says Christine Peterson, the executive director of the nonprofit Foresight Institute in Palo Alto and the one credited with coining the term "open source."

INVISIBLE INK. Hypertext is another trademark of the open- source community--and it's not just those blue highlighted links among static documents. To cut communities loose from portals and news groups, programmers developed software, available for free at www.crit.org, that lets gangs of Netizens annotate any other Web site they visit with the electronic equivalent of sticky notes that only group members can read. Crit.org hasn't tried to popularize its free software, but similar tools and support are available from a startup in Redwood City, Calif., called Third Voice Inc. "The successes of open source will be part of everyone's background culture," says Eric S. Raymond, author of the open-source manifesto, The Cathedral and the Bazaar (www.tuxedo.org).

The open-source gang doesn't have a lock on communitarian technology. At online auctioneer eBay Inc., you can post details--good and bad--about your experience with vendors, who are free to respond. The credibility this feedback loop inspires may explain how eBay and other auction sites attracted a cool $1 billion in transactions last year.

All these software advances, however, carry the seeds of their own corruption. If continual peer review is the crux of online credibility, there can be strong incentives to stuff the ballot box. A crooked vendor at eBay, for example, could load the message boards with spurious testimony. To avoid such outcomes, "we're putting a lot of effort into how people develop reputations online and how they can manage complex, long-term identities," says Judith S. Donath, an assistant professor and community expert at MIT's Media Lab, which pioneered product recommendation software in the early 1990s.

The emergence of sensually rich media on the Net could help resolve some of these issues. Voice-based chat will be followed by video, virtual reality, and simulated touch. These formats could help foster trust among cybernauts by linking online personas more tightly to flesh-and-blood individuals.

Trust, indeed, has been a factor in the open-source community's success. Because the movement draws volunteers from hundreds of organizations, members are forced to juggle conflicting loyalties. They must learn to let others tinker with their code and help debug it. Few get rich off the resulting programs, which are mostly distributed free on the Net. But there are other rewards, says analyst Dan Kusnetzky at International Data Corp.--like watching the market share for Linux server software soar from zip in 1995 to nearly 16% worldwide last year.

That's just a glimmer of what online communities can accomplish. As social beings, humans have an irrepressible drive to connect and collaborate. Once upon a time, connection meant church suppers, street fairs, and committee meetings. Now, online groups breach all physical boundaries to share the sorrows of illness, the wisdom of age, the wonder of art. Tomorrow, we'll talk and touch with levels of intimacy that we select from an ever-richer palette. The dream is that this enrichment will make online communities less random. And a rendezvous with friends or colleagues in cyberspace will be as satisfying as any encounter you treasure in the real world. This may well be the ultimate promise of the Internet.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.